Shanghai is an eminently picturesque city, from the pretty streets and Art Deco villas of the former French Concession to the skyscrapers of Lujiazui and the colonial buildings that line the Bund. Shanghai was a theme and a place and a concept which western cinema kept touching on in the 1920s and 1930s particularly, a symbol of the exotic, the mysterious and the wanton. There were dozens of movies made in Hollywood and elsewhere which referred to Shanghai in their title. The very name ‘Shanghai’ held allure. Here are 5 films that showcase Shanghai’s reputation for exoticism in the early 20th century.
Shanghai Express (1932) is a thrilling and stylish adventure film – one of the best-remembered films of Marlene Dietrich. It was the fourth of seven films the actress made with director Josef von Sternberg, following The Blue Angel (1930), Morocco (1930) and Dishonored (1931), and later followed by Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), and The Devil Is a Woman (1935). The most complex and interesting figure in the film is Hui Fei, played by the luminous Wong. Companion to Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily, this courageous and world-weary high-class prostitute saves the day only to be raped by the vile Chang. Although we see little of Shanghai, it serves a crucial symbolic role as the travelers’ destination.
In this movie, Chester Kent struggles to produce ‘prologues’ for cinemas (short live theater productions that play before the main feature in a movie theater). The hit song “Shanghai Lil” (referring to the Shanghai Lily – see the summary of ‘Shanghai Express’) by Harry Warren and Al Dubin is performed three times over the course of the movie, and this draws on the exoticism of Shanghai for atmosphere. In one of the prologues that Chester Kent puts on, a drunk James Cagney dressed in a tuxedo weaves his way through a bar, presumably in Shanghai, filled with ironic and blasé extras, “looking high and looking low, looking for his Shanghai Lil”.
When a prominent official is murdered at a banquet honoring Charle Chan, the detective and son Lee team up to expose an opium-smuggling ring. Chan is first seen cavorting with a group of children on a steamer entering the Shanghai harbor with the iconic skyline of The Bund visible in the background. Spouting his trademark stream of Confucian-style wisdom in his bizarrely efficient pidgin English, Chan also speaks Cantonese in this film (presumably his native language), with a thick American accent. He has been sent by the U.S. government to investigate, predictably, an opium smuggling ring, and, as always, he restores world harmony.
A formula wartime musical that never acknowledges that WW II was going on, HAPPY GO LUCKY instead follows the fortunes of Marjory Stuart (Mary Martin). She is a New York City hatcheck girl who has saved her pennies to travel to a Caribbean island in hopes of snaring a rich husband.
Marjory arrives on the same boat as Bubbles (Betty Hutton, who steals the movie), a singer who has come to meet her lover, Wally Case (Eddie Bracken). Wally’s best pal is beach comber Pete Hamilton (Dick Powell), and once they learn that Marjory, masquerading as a wealthy type, is not rich at all, the
three conspire to help her land fat cat Alfred Monroe (Rudy Vallee, playing a snobbish role similar to the one he essayed in PALM BEACH STORY and continued to play for many years, up to and including his work in HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING). In the course of events, however,
Marjory and Pete fall in love. Although there are some fine songs, Vallee doesn’t sing any of them. Hutton is given more than her share, with her rendition of “Murder He Says” one of the film’s highlights. The legendary calypso singer Sir Lancelot also contributes a fine traditional version of
“Never Make a Pretty Woman Your Wife.” Other songs by Loesser and McHugh include “Let’s Get Lost,” “Fuddy Duddy Watchmaker,” “Sing A Tropical Song,” “Happy Go Lucky,” and “Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay” by Sayers, with special lyrics by Loesser.
In ‘Shadows Over Shanghai’ Irene Roma, a teacher at an American mission outside of Shanghai, is charged by her brother, Peter, with delivering a valuable amulet to the Sun family in San Francisco, when Peter is shot down. The amulet will somehow cause funds (we are never really told how) to be released to help the Chinese against the Japanese, and for this reason, is being tracked by the Russians and the Japanese. But Irene, who turns out to be Russian, cannot embark for San Francisco, because only Americans evacuees are allowed on the ships headed in that direction. So she decides to marry American journalist Johnny McGinty, mistakenly assuming that this will give her American citizenship.